The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace,
Verse 1. - The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. Compare Jeremiah 1:1; Hosea 1:2; Amos 1:1, etc. No other historical book commences in this manner, and we may best account for the introduction of the clause by the consideration that "Nehemiah" having been originally appended to "Ezra," it marked the point at which a new narrative began by a new author. The month Chisleu. The word Chisleu, or rather Kislev, is probably Persian. It was unknown to the Jews before the captivity, and is found only in this passage and in Zechariah 7:1, where Kislev is said to be "the ninth month," corresponding nearly to our December. The twentieth year. The twentieth regnal year of Artaxerxes (Longimanus) is intended (see ch. 2:1). This began in B.C. 445, and terminated in B.C. 444. Shushan the palace, where Daniel saw the vision of the ram with two horns (Daniel 8:2), and Ahasuerus (Xerxes) made his great feast to all his princes and servants (Esther 1:3), is beyond all doubt Susa, the capital city of Kissia, or Susiana, one of the most ancient cities in the world, and the place which, from the time of Darius Hystaspis was the principal residence of the Persian court. It was situated in the fertile plain east of the Lower Tigris, and lay on or near the river Choaspes, probably at the spot now known as Sus, or Shush. Remains of the palace were discovered by the expedition under Sir Fenwick Williams in the year 1852, and have been graphically described by Mr. Loftus ('Chaldaea and Susiana,' pp. 373-375).
That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.
Verse 2. - Hanani, one of my brethren. Afterwards given the charge of the gates of Jerusalem by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:2).
And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.
Verse 3. - The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down. It has been supposed, either that the demolition of the wall here referred to was quite recent, having occurred during the space of twelve years which intervenes between the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, or else that it belonged to a time of depression which followed shortly after the completion of the temple by Zerubbabel (Ewald, 'History of Israel,' vol. 5. pp. 120, 121, and 148, note 3, E. Tr.); but there is really no reason to believe that the demolition effected under the orders of Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:10) had ever hitherto been repaired, or the restoration of the wall even attempted. The Samaritan accusation in Ezra 4:12 falls short of a statement that the wall was restored, and, if it asserted the fact, would be insufficient authority for it. The supposition of Ewald, that "as soon as the city was rebuilt, the attempt would be made to fortify it" (p. 121, note 3), ignores the jealousy of the Persians and their power to step in and prevent a subject town from fortifying itself.
And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,
Verse 4. - When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. The revelation of the actual condition of Jerusalem came upon Nehemiah with a shock. He had perhaps not thought much upon the subject before; he had had no means of exact information; he had supposed the city flourishing under the superintendence of Ezra, whose piety and patriotism were no doubt known to him. It was a bitter grief to him to find that his people were still "a reproach to their neighbours," laughed to scorn by those whose walls had never been destroyed, or who had been allowed to rebuild them. And he may have felt that his city, under the circumstances of the time, was in real danger. As Dean Stanley observes - "In those days rather one may say m those countries of disorder, a city without locked gates and lofty walls was no city at all" ('Lectures on the Jewish Church,' Third Series, p. 124). A few years previously Egypt had been in revolt; she might revolt again, and carry her arms into Syria. Arab tribes from the desert might extend their raids into Judaea, and be tempted by the known value of the temple treasures to swoop upon the unwalled town. Such thoughts occurring to an excitable Oriental, produced not grief and anxiety merely, but a flood of tears (comp. Ezra 10:1). And fasted. Fasting had become a frequent practice among the Jews during the captivity. Solemn fasts had been introduced on the anniversaries of the taking of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple, and the murder of Gedaliah (Zechariah 8:19). Fasting had also taken a prominent place in the devotions of individuals. Daniel fasted (Daniel 9:3; Daniel 10:3); Esther fasted (Esther 4:16); Ezra fasted (Ezra 10:6); and now Nehemiah fasted. On the grounds of natural piety out of which the practice arises, see the comment on Ezra 10:6. The God of heaven. See the comment on Ezra 1:2.
And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments:
Verse 5. - And said, I beseech thee. The opening of Nehemiah's prayer follows so closely the thoughts and words of Daniel's (Daniel 9:4), that it is almost impossible to suppose that one of the two writers had not the words of the other before him. As there are no sufficient grounds for questioning the generally received date of Daniel's prophecy ( B.C. 536), we must suppose Nehemiah familiar with his writings, and an admirer of their tone and spirit. In this verse he differs from Daniel only in substituting "Jehovah" for "Lord" (Adonai), and introducing his own favourite phrase "God of heaven."
Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father's house have sinned.
Verse 6. - Both I and my father's house have sinned. Ewald well observes, "In the prayer of Nehemiah the keynote is struck in the words, 'I and my father's house have sinned'" ('History of Israel,' vol. 5. p. 149, note 1). The desolation which he mourns is the result of the people's sins, and in those sins are included his own, and those of his ancestors. His own may not have been very grievous, but those of his fathers weigh upon him as if his own, and oppress his spirit.
We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.
Verse 7. - We have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments. The ordinances of the Law are frequently summed up under these three heads (Deuteronomy 5:31; Deuteronomy 6:1; Deuteronomy 11:1, etc.); but it would be a mistake to regard them as constituting a logical division of the various precepts contained in the Pentateuch, or to suppose that every precept is to be referred absolutely to one or other of the three.
Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations:
Verse 8. - If ye transgress, etc. This is not a quotation, but a reference to the general sense of various passages, as, for instance, Leviticus 26:27-45; Deuteronomy 30:1-5, etc. The sacred historians habitually refer to the older Scriptures in this way, quoting them in the spirit rather than in the letter.
But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.
Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.
Verse 10. - Thy people whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power. It would be better to translate, "Whom thou didst redeem." The reference is especially to the deliverance from Egypt, which is so constantly spoken of as effected "with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm" (Deuteronomy 9:29; Deuteronomy 26:8, etc. ).
O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.
Verse 11. - Prosper thy servant this day. "This day" does not perhaps mean more than "at this time"- in connection with this matter which is now in my thoughts. And grant him mercy in the sight of this man. "This man" is, of course, Artaxerxes, though as yet he has not been named. Nehemiah's thoughts have far outstripped his words. He has made up his mind that, in order to remove the reproach of Jerusalem, he must go there in person; that, to do so, he must obtain the king's permission; and that, to get his permission, he needs to be in very special favour with him. All depending on one man only, he has one man only in his mind, who becomes to him, therefore, "this man." I was the king's cupbearer. Literally, "I was cupbearer to the king." Not his sole cupbearer, but one of many. He mentions the fact here, partly to explain the meaning of "this man" to the reader, partly because it was his office which would give him access to Artaxerxes, and enable him to profit by the royal "mercy" or favour.